Congress needs to step up fast to protect abused children

Congress needs to step up fast to protect abused children
© iStock

Congress deserves credit for expeditiously passing massive coronavirus relief assistance; there have been three measures, more are coming. 

The pandemic isn't going away soon. Also, in passing the latest $2.2 trillion bill, there were inevitable errors of commission and omission.

One illustration, comparatively small but critical and heart-wrenching: child abuse. The big legislation included $47 million for domestic violence — defined as spousal or partner abuse — including funds for the domestic violence hotline. It did not fund a comparable amount targeted at child abuse; that needs to be rectified right away.

ADVERTISEMENT

Even before the pandemic struck, child abuse has been an epidemic, killing five children every day in the United States. The Department of Health and Human Services reports there were 678,000 cases of severe child abuse in 2018, and 1,777 children died. Many experts believe that vastly underestimates the actual numbers.

COVID-19 threatens to severely exacerbate child abuse. With stay-at-home orders and no work or school, tensions build in most families; they erupt in troubled ones.

Schools, churches, Boys and Girls clubs, sports teams have offered temporary sanctuaries from abusive environments; they're shut down in much of America.

"There is a wide range of fallout from pandemic anxiety and school shutdowns," says Rebecca Cooper, Vice President for Childhelp, one of the country's largest nonprofits to prevent child abuse. "There is more abuse already occurring in homes where caregivers are melting down from the stress, children are trapped at home with abusers, schools and daycare are closed, and therapists and other frontline providers are now more difficult to access."

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, which Congress should recognize with funding legislation as soon as it reconvenes. It's a long-term investment; research shows that chronically abused kids often become abusers themselves as adults.

ADVERTISEMENT

There is a pressing need to provide more funds for public and public-private partnerships for more outreach, and resources for child protective services and finding more counselors and therapists and rescue venues for abused kids.

A small example. Appropriate at least $2 million (that's with a “m” not billions or trillions) for the Childhelp Hotline, a number that abused youth can call toll free. Without schools or religious institutions or youth activity centers — where the problems often are spotted — reporting is more elusive.

Even with that, Childhelp has had a 20 percent increase last month in calls compared to a year earlier and the increase in text messages was off the charts. Dealing with text messages, favored by youths, is more effective but more time-consuming for the counselors.

The nonprofit desperately needs more personnel, call lines and publicity, and, in this climate, private fundraising is tougher. It’s a simple number to call or text (1-800-4-A-CHILD) and one that saves lives. (In decades of column writing this is the first — probably the last — time I'll ever plug a number.)

In taking up new measures, Congress unfortunately won't undo some of the ripoffs enacted last month. The real estate industry got a $170 billion tax break. Even with lawmakers inserting language to try and prevent them from doing so, do you wonder if two beneficiaries still might be the president and his son-in-law, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump's strategy to stay in office Trump tries to soothe anxious GOP senators Press: King Donald's goal - no checks, no balances MORE?

Congress should do everything possible to toughen the accountability and transparency standards. The president's close ally, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, has sole discretion doling out over half a trillion dollars, which means Trump has control, and personal and political favors are likely.

The main focus of the next shot in the arm should be health care equipment, providers and additional aid for the most hard-pressed state and local governments. The K Street lobbyists have been salivating, and there will be more benefits bestowed on deserving special interests.

The lawmakers can do something sooner to help abused children. There is bi-partisan support for doing more for child abuse prevention, so there is no need to wait.

For a fraction of the bonanza given to real estate titans, the politicians can make a better investment to help kids who are more at risk now than ever.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.